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Islamic Society ( 13 Oct 2019, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Qawwali: A Dying Art

By S. Arshad, New Age Islam

12 October 2019

Qawwali which was a very popular form of devotional music in the Indian sub-continent during the second half of the 20th century is on the Wane. Though there are still some good Qawwal both in India and Pakistan, the popularity of Qawwali among the masses has diminished for various reasons.

Qawwali as a form of devotional music was created by the renowned Indian post and musician and a disciple of Sufi Nizamuddin Awlia, Amir Khusrau with the help of his teacher Pandit Gopal Nayak in the 13th century. Khusrau fused Persian, Arabic and Turkish musical traditions with Indian music to give a distinct shape to Qawwali. During that age, the tradition of devotional poetry and music was very popular among Hindus. Muslim Sufis had also arrived in India and some of them were good posts composing mystic poetry that was sung in monasteries (Khanqah). Qawwali became the carrier of the Sufi poetry. Amir Khusrau himself wrote Ghazals that were spiritual and devotional. The word Qawwal is derived from the Arabic word Qaul which means saying of the prophet or Aulia. Therefore, Qawwal is one who sings devotional songs. Gradually Qawwali became a part of the culture of the Indian sub-continent and Sufi shrines became centres of Qawwali. There, the sessions of Qawwali came to be known as Mehfil-e-Sama.

In India and Pakistan, Qawwali became popular among the masses during the second half of the 20th century and Qawwali took the shape of folk music in which all kinds of topics were presented. Qawwals like Habib Painter, Aziz Nazan, Jani Babu, Shankar Shambhu, Shakila Bano Bhopali, and Saleem Chishti emerged in this period. Romantic, didactic, Sufi and social issues were presented in these Qawwalis but Sufism remained at its heart.

Bahut Kathin Hai Dagar Panghat Ki,

 Bhar Do Jholi,

Chdhta Suraj Dheerey Dheerey,

Jhoom Barabar Jhoom Sharabi are some of most popular Qawwalis.

In the 70s and 80s, the popularity of Qawwalis made it a regular part of Indian films. Inclusion of a Qawwali in the film guaranteed its success. Therefore, some popular Qawwalis were included in films. Later, film producers encouraged film singers to sing Qawwali and Mohammad Rafi, Manna Dey, Shakila Bano Bhopali sang Qawwalis that were different from traditional Qawwali and were known as filmi Qawwali. Interestingly, even Kishore Kumar tried to sing some Qawwalis for films.

By the end of the century, Qawwali lost its popularity though some qawwals are still there like Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Hussain Brothers but Qawwali does not enjoy the popularity it once did.

It is intriguing that though Sufi shrines in the sub continent are popular among the masses Qawwali is not. The government also does not have any scheme to promote Qawwali though it is a powerful carrier of the message of peace and harmony. Occasionally, some organisations and institutions take steps to promote and revive this dying tradition. For example, in October 2018, Shivaji University, Kolhapur organised a national inter University Qawwali competition. But such endeavours are rare. The West Bengal government has launched a project under which it gives honorarium to folk artistes and singers but Qawwali has not been included in the category of folk arts. Qawwali should be included in the project to save this art. The Indian government should take steps to revive and promote the tradition of Qawwali which originated in Indian soil.

S. Arshad is a regular columnist for


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